The History of Otsego County, New York


D. Hamilton Hurd

Published by Everts & Fariss, Philadelphia


JORDAN, Ambrose L - Cooperstown

This distinguished lawyer and eloquent advocate was born at 
Hillsdale, Columbia Co., N.Y., in the year 1791. His father was a 
farmer of Scotch-Irish descent, who, possessing a very strong 
physical constitution, and endowed with superior judgment, lived to 
a very advanced age, and was always held in high esteem by his 
neighbors. The son, having received the limited education of a 
common school, was at an early age set to work on the paternal 
acres; but it soon became apparent that agricultural labor was not 
his proper vocation, and, after some futile trials in farming, whereby 
it was demonstrated that he had a strong taste for study and books, 
but was incurably indolent as a worker on the farm, his father wisely 
determined to permit the boy to work out his career in the way 
indicated by his own wishes.
He was sent to an academy, where he soon acquired as much 
Latin, and other miscellaneous learning, as could then be obtained 
in such an institution. For several months he sought to recruit his 
limited finances by teaching a school himself. As soon as he could 
command the means to pay his board he entered a law-office in 
Albany, where he distinguished himself by the closest attention to 
study and office business, and, by the intelligent performance of 
extra duties, was able to provide in a great degree, for his own 
support. Having been admitted to the bar in the year of 1813, he 
commenced the practice of law at the village of Cooperstown, having 
formed a copartnership with Farrand STRANAHAN, Esq., who was 
an established lawyer at that place. At the time he thus commenced 
the serious business of life, Mr. Jordan was only about twenty-two 
years of age. He was quite six feet in height, was slight and graceful 
in figure, had regular, oval features, a profusion of brown curls, 
expressive blue eyes, and a complexion as fine as a woman's. His 
voice was not loud or particularly powerful, but it was most agreeable 
in quality, and had a distinct carrying force which always enabled 
him to be heard in the largest and most crowded courtrooms. He 
had great powers of endurance, and could work many hours a day 
for consecutive weeks, without any apparent signs of fatigue. In 
long and exciting trials, in the heat and foul air of crowded courts, 
he was always able to appear fresh and strong, when other distinguished 
advocates became worn out and exhausted. He had a natural command
of language. In extemporaneous speaking his sentences were 
regular and complete; he never hesitated for the appropriate word; 
he had a natural aptitude for going to the bottom of any subject, and 
when an adverse witness had been cross-examined by him, the witness 
was like a sponge squeezed dry. His methods of managing a cause, 
examining witnesses, and summing up the evidence were exhaustive 
and complete. When he had finished his address to a jury no point 
was left unnoticed, no argument failed to be duly elaborated, and 
nothing further could be said with effect.
Several anecdotes are still remembered in connection with Mr. 
Jordan's career at Cooperstown, which give an insight into the 
character of the man. He hated all unfairness, and would not himself 
submit to extortion or imposition. Having gone to a neighboring 
town in Otsego County to try a cause in a justice's court, on his 
return home in the early evening his wagon broke down. There 
was some snow on the ground, and just after the accident happened 
a farmer drove up in a lumber sleigh. Mr. Jordan asked is he would 
assist him to get to Cooperstown, some five miles distant. The man 
replied that he would, and then the two put the broken wagon on 
the sleigh, and leading the disengaged horse, drove on to Cooperstown. 
No bargain had been made as to compensation, and when Mr. Jordan 
inquired what he should pay, the sharp farmer replied, naming a sum 
that was extortionate. Mr. Jordan was annoyed, but calmly stated 
that the pay demanded was three times as much as the service was 
worth; that rather than have any hard feelings about the matter, he 
would pay double price, but no more. The offer was refused, and the 
farmer departed, breathing threats. Within a very few days a summons 
was served on Mr. Jordan to appear before a justice, who was a near 
neighbor and friend of the farmer. On the trial the justice gave
judgment for the plaintiff for the full amount of his claim, and costs. 
As soon as the law would permit, execution was issued on this judgment,
and placed in the hands of a deputy-sheriff for collection. Mr. Jordan 
managed to have information of the coming of the officer to collect 
the judgment. Mr. STRANAHAN, the law-partner of Mr. Jordan, 
was the owner of a handsome gold watch and chain, which for that 
occasion Mr. Jordan borrowed, and hung up conspicuously on a nail 
on the front of a deck at which he was writing. That being done, the 
officer came in and told Mr. Jordan he had an execution against him. 
Mr. Jordan said he did not intend to pay it. "Then," said the officer, 
"my duty requires me to levy on your property, and I shall take this," 
at the same time taking the watch and putting it into his pocket. Mr. 
Jordan said to the officer, "My friend, I advise you to put back the 
watch. If you do not you will get yourself into trouble." The man, 
thinking he was quite safe, left the office, taking with him the watch. 
With all possible expedition a writ and other papers in a replevin suit 
were prepared in a suit of Stranahan against the deputy-sheriff. The 
sheriff of the county was found, the replevin writ put into his hands, 
which he at once served on the deputy, took back the watch and 
delivered it back to the owner. The deputy-sheriff called on the 
farmer to indemnify him in the replevin suit, which he felt compelled 
to do. The result of the affair, which was soon arrived at, was this: 
the plaintiff succeeded in the replevin suit, the costs of which
amounted to over one hundred dollars. The judgment obtained by the 
extortionate farmer was about twenty dollars, and he finally had to 
pay over to Mr. Jordan, as Stranahan's attorney, the difference 
between these sums. The attempted imposition was amply punished.
At the period referred to, and, indeed all through life, Mr. Jordan 
was sensitive in regard to public opinion, and the following story, as 
related by himself, illustrates that feeling: "After I had settled at 
Cooperstown, but before I was much known in Otsego County, I 
had occasion to go to Albany to attend a special term of the supreme 
court. My friend, the cashier of the Otsego County bank, who knew 
of my intention, requested me to take a sum of money, - I think it 
was $1800 - to be deposited in a bank in Albany. I agreed to take it, 
and the money was counted in my presence, separated into parcels 
of $100 each, and the whole nicely put up in a package. I received 
the money, and with my satchel of law papers was conveyed in due 
time to Albany. Before going to court the morning after my arrival 
I thought I would deliver the money at the Albany bank. The moment 
I looked at the package I saw that it had been tampered with. 
Examining it hastily, I found that one package of $100 had been 
abstracted. The loss was a serious one to me at that time, but I 
decided in a moment what it was proper for me to do. I went to 
the office of a friend, borrowed $100, put it into the package, and 
hurried to the bank and deposited the whole amount which had been 
entrusted to me. I said nothing to the officers of the Otsego County 
bank about his loss, or to any one else except the kind friend who 
lent me the money to replace it, and secrecy was enjoined upon him."
A peculiarity of Mr. Jordan - an unfortunate one in some respects, 
as it caused him to labor a large portion of his life for those who
never paid for his services - was this, that having once enlisted in a cause 
nothing could detach him from his client. Whether he was paid 
anything or not, he went through to the end of the controversy. 
He was often imposed upon by unfortunate or unworthy clients.
While practicing at Cooperstown he became the legal guardian 
of certain minors, who had a presumptive title to a military lot of 600 
acres, situate in a central county of the State of New York. The 
lot was in the possession of another party, holding adversely. An 
action at law was brought by Mr. Jordan to recover this property. 
Upon examination it was found that the evidence to support the claim 
of the plaintiffs was very defective; and particularly that one witness, 
who had knowledge of decisive facts, was imperatively necessary. 
That witness, when inquiry came to be made, could not be found. 
He had disappeared. The time for the trial of the ejectment suit was 
approaching, when Mr. Jordan determined that he would not be 
beaten in it if any possible effort on his part could prevent it. 
Having only a slight clue as to persons with whom the missing witness was 
connected, Mr. Jordan set out with his own horse and wagon from 
Cooperstown, drove to Albany, then to Columbia county, making 
minute inquiries by the way; then on to Dutchess county, where 
some slight information was obtained; then to New York city, and 
finally to a small hamlet on Long Island, where the desired witness 
was found, and his attendance secured for the trial. Mr. Jordan 
hastily returned home, and had barely time to reach the circuit court 
where the case was to be tried. By the aid of the witness thus found, 
the title of Mr. Jordan's wards to the lot in question was established. 
He had devoted much time to examination and preparation of the case, 
had spent fifteen days in hunting up the missing witness, and five days 
more attending the circuit court, and he was successful.
When Mr. Jordan's accounts as guardian came to be settled, the 
law permitted him to charge against his wards the items of money 
actually paid out on their account, but nothing for his professional 
services. For all his time, trouble, and skill in the affair, he never 
received a cent of compensation.
The professional progress of Mr. Jordan was rapid and solid, and 
in two or three years he became the acknowledged leader of the 
Otsego County bar. Soon after he had settled at Cooperstown, he 
married Miss Cordelia Caroline PHILLIPS, at Claverack, Columbia 
Co., N.Y., and of this marriage the issue in subsequent years were 
six children, three of whom have died, and three at the present time 
(1878) survive.
In the year 1820 he determined to return to his native county, and 
accordingly established his law-office in the city of Hudson, where he 
remained in full and successful practice for the next eighteen years. 
The first difficulty to be encountered at the Columbia county bar, by 
any one aspiring to a prominent position as an advocate, was, that it 
became necessary to meet and contend with Elisha WILLIAMS, who 
had long held almost undisputed sway in the courts in that district. 
Mr. Williams was then in the full maturity of his wonderful powers, and then and ever since considered, by those most competent to form a judgment on such a subject, the greatest jury lawyer ever produced by the United States. He was certainly the best actor the writer has ever seen on any stage. He commanded with equal effect the springs of laughter and 
of tears. The most stoic of judges could with difficulty resist the
spell of his eloquence, and ordinary juries seemed to delight in being
quite carried away with it. It was against this colossus of the
law-courts that Mr. Jordan was at once brought into antagonism, and it
is still remembered to his credit that he did not shrink from the
Indeed it soon became an established fact in the courts of Columbia 
and the neighboring counties, that Mr. Williams could no longer 
succeed in winning a bad cause when he was opposed by the thorough, 
painstaking methods, and ready eloquence of Mr. Jordan. They were 
generally employed on opposite sides, and tried all the contested cases 
on the calendar.
On one important occasion the writer remembers that Williams and 
Jordan were employed on the same side for the plaintiff. A suit was 
brought to collect an ordinary note the defendant alleged to be a
forgery. From the notable position of the parties, the question was
discussed with much bitterness of feeling, and public opinion as
convulsed on the subject. At the trial in Columbia county a New York
city judge presided, and a city lawyer was the leader for the defense,
with half a dozen other counsels to aid him. The judge was somewhat
deaf, and that gave the plaintiff's counsel an opportunity to keep up a
fire of jokes at the expense of the judge and the opposing counsel
within hearing of the jury, but unheard by the court, which tended to
and did greatly prejudiced the jury against the defendant and in favor
of the plaintiff. The cause was easily won for the plaintiff, and the
judgment was finally collected. Many persons, however, continued to
think that the superiority of the plaintiff's counsel rather than the justice of
his case secured the verdict. Upon the retirement of Mr. Williams from 
actual practice, a few years after Mr. Jordan settled in Hudson, Mr. 
Jordan became the acknowledged leader of the Columbia county bar, 
and retained the position until he finally removed from Hudson. Some 
years before that event he became introduced to a New York city 
audience by a peculiar suit at law, which then attracted much attention 
by reason of its novelty. A young house-painter at Hudson was engaged 
to be married to a young lady of the same city, whose father was 
possessed of considerable property. This lady happened to make the 
acquaintance of a merchant in New York, whom she (and her father 
also) considered a more eligible parti, and when he offered he was 
accepted, and the house-painter was thrown over. The mechanic did 
not rest satisfied with his arrangement. He consulted Mr. Jordan, who 
brought an action against the fickle fair one and her husband. The 
cause was tried at a circuit court in the city of New York, attracted 
great public attention, and was fully reported. The defense was 
conducted by Henry R. STORRS, Esq., an advocate of very 
distinguished reputation; but in spite of all his efforts, the jury
found a verdict of $1000 for the plaintiff, which was considered, in view of 
all the adverse circumstances, a great triumph.
In the spring of 1838, Mr. Jordan, along with his law-partner, 
Edward CLARK, Esq., removed from Hudson to the city of New York. 
From May, 1838, to the spring of 1860, Mr. Jordan was continuously 
engaged in the practice of his profession in the city of New York, with 
the exception of two years, during which he filled the office of
attorney-general of the State of New York, and had his official
residence at Albany. During this long period of twenty-two years he was
retained and prominently engaged in a large proportion of the severely litigated causes which occupied the courts of New York.
It is impossible in a sketch like this even to allude to the many 
important trials of causes in which he took a conspicuous part. It 
will be sufficient to say that he was opposed from time to time, and 
almost constantly, to the foremost advocates at the New York bar. 
His success in those forensic struggles was satisfactory to his clients 
and himself, and was equal to his distinguished reputation for ability 
and eloquence.
Mr. Jordan was always too much engrossed with his professional 
labors to have time or inclination to accept political office. But his 
views in regard to political parties and governmental policies were 
always distinct, and were freely avowed and advocated. Besides 
holding the office of attorney-general, as before stated, he was at 
one time elected to the senate of the State of New York, but resigned 
office before the end of his term. He was also a member of a 
convention to revise the constitution of the State of New York, and 
served in that capacity with much industry and ability.
After a painful and lingering illness, Mr. Jordan died at his 
residence in the city of New York, on July 16, 1865.

Excerpt from History of Otsego Co., NY, page 282


Return to Biography Index